“What vocabularies or stories of justification occur in that moment when a person decides that he needs to kill another,” asks Dr. Fatimah Tobing Rony in How Do We Look? Resisting Visual Biopolitics (11). Rony’s latest book examines transnational images of Indonesian women, discussing how they are used for both harmful and radical ends in a process she calls “visual biopolitics” (4). Rony defines visual biopolitics as a “system, shored up by iconographies of justification found in photography, cinema, television, national monuments, and the internet, that underscores preexisting structural race and gender representations in language, politics, and the unconscious” (5). Within the Indonesian context, this refers to a series of visual codes and motifs used to justify the exploitation and killing of Indonesian women throughout history, dictating who lives and who dies.
For Rony, the stakes are high because visual biopolitics have been weaponized against Indonesian women in the past; reworking this representation, then, becomes quite literally a matter of life and death. How Do We Look expands on the theorizations in her previous book, The Third Eye, which outlined a unique subjective space in which marginalized groups can critique the same visually encoded forces that attempt to subjugate them. Rony has now shifted her focus to the “fourth eye,” the witness. “The fourth eye,” Rony argues, “is … the eye that sees the violence of visual biopolitics, and how one’s self is constituted by it” (16). While the third eye critiques these harmful visual codes, the fourth eye survives them. The book thus probes a central paradox: how film and other forms of images can both reinforce and resist the harmful effects of visual biopolitics.
Rony’s first chapter discusses Annah la Javanaise, a young Javanese girl who was the subject of Paul Gauguin’s nude portrait Aita tamari vahine Judith te parari (“The child-woman Judith is not yet breached,” 1893–94). The image, Rony argues, is actually the combination of two different girls: Annah la Javanaise, and Judith, Gauguin’s European neighbor. While the named subject is Judith, the exploited body is Annah’s. Rony interprets this as an example of the violent effects of visual biopolitics: the brown body is marked as flesh “to be breached” while the white Judith remains unsullied. Rony argues that “the history of the two girls allow us to parse the relationships of sexuality, race, and primitivism that are latent in the painting” (31). So, while Annah is historically viewed as Gauguin’s muse, she is also his victim.
The predatory relationship reflected in the portrait speaks to a broader visual commodification of Javanese women—specifically, the image of the female traditional Javanese dancer in France—that Rony tracks from the late nineteenth century to the present day. Like Annah’s, these women’s bodies become visual cues for exotification. Rony traces how metaphysical meanings are used as propagandistic material to further a range of political goals, both domestically and internationally. During the 1966 Indonesian genocide, the New Order, an Indonesian authoritarian regime, targeted and killed traditional dancers for their perceived embodiment of the “evil feminist leftist dancer necessary for Indonesian historiography,” demonstrating the lethal consequences of oppressive visual biopolitics (17).
Rony also points out a possible moment of resistance between Annah and Gauguin by analyzing a series of photographs taken by Gauguin and his European elite friends. They dress up in ridiculous outfits as a form of protest, cosplaying anarchic resistance, while the real defiance, Rony argues, is communicated in Annah’s gaze: somber, direct, and unrelenting. She is described as a phantom, “on her guard, among men who are proud to show off their spectacular Western subjectivity” (54). Gauguin can dress but not pose his subject; therefore, Annah rebels through her posture and gaze; this is the fourth eye.
Following Rony’s analysis of painting and photography, How Do We Look performs a close reading of two documentary films made by non-Indonesians: Trance and Dance in Bali (Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, 1952) and The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012). The films differ in style and approach: the first is a traditional ethnographic piece about Balinese dancers, the second an art-house documentary in which ex-military leaders restage the violent crimes they committed during the rise of the New Order.
Despite these differences, Rony argues that both films create and reinforce visual biopolitics through sensationalizing and performance. The Mead film makes the Balinese practice of dancing into a spectacle, reinforcing the image of the dancing Indonesian woman with pungent doses of sensuality and exotification. Similarly, The Act of Killing reaffirms these damaging optics through reenactment in an act of “fascinating cannibalism,” where the media viewer “is entertained by the retelling of savagery” (12–13). Both films overexpose Indonesian cultural aesthetics, while refusing any context for what the viewer sees. This lack of a frame of reference works to reinforce difference within a constrictive colonial lens. Historical contexts, Rony argues, are key to deconstructing harmful visual biopolitics.
In the latter half of the book, Rony examines various films that, she asserts, resist visual biopolitics, beginning with Mother Dao, the Turtlelike (Vincent Monnikendam, 1995). This found-footage film splices together Dutch colonial footage shot in Indonesia and recontextualizes images from the archive by juxtaposing them through editing. For Rony, this practice is reminiscent of surrealism and the French avant-garde artistic movements of the 1920s and 1930s, when older images were manipulated and repurposed to convey new meanings. “Mother Dao,” Rony argues, “through its use of recontextualizing archival footage and principles of surrealism, is an indictment of visual biopolitics” (146). There is no direct correlation between the clips. Rather, the film challenges the hierarchy of images, unraveling its original imbued colonial meaning. Rony argues that, with Mother Dao, Monnikendam “raid[s] the archive,” subverting it and exposing its violence (134).
Rony’s final chapter focuses on the collectivity of filmmakers and the pivotal role Indonesian voices play in resisting visual biopolitics. She dedicates the majority of the chapter to discussing an omnibus film project that she undertook with three other Indonesian directors: Upi Avianto, Lasja Fauzia Susatyo, and the project’s founder, Nia Dinata. The film, Perempuan Punya Cerita (Chants of Lotus, 2008), is split into four stories, each directed by a different woman. This model highlights networks of women, both thematically and production-wise, creating a “web of identification” in the film that complicates visual codes—recontextualizing the image of Indonesian women (156). For Rony, the goal is “to focus not on individual protagonists but on how all women’s subjectivities are affected by each other: the I is the we” (157). The omnibus film, Rony argues, works to represent the complexity of Indonesian female identity.
Even though How Do We Look uses images of Indonesian women to demonstrate both the restrictive and generative possibilities of visual biopolitics, Rony contends that her thesis is not only relevant to the Indonesian context but applicable to other frameworks as well. She writes: “[W]hat I am describing can be used to interrogate other systems of visualizing power to create other acts of resistance” (11). Two summers after the murder of George Floyd and in the wake of nationwide calls for institutional and social reform within the United States, an understanding of the way that visual biopolitics operates, and its lethal repercussions, resonates differently. Rony’s book suggests that deconstructing these visual codes and repurposing them to reject their established meanings—as based in colonialism, imperialism, and neoliberalism—is one way forward to a more equitable future. In destroying the signified image, one can reclaim one’s own visuality.